I recently had the pleasure of reading "The Repressive Politics of Emotional Intelligence," a lengthy article by author and professor Merve Emre that recently appeared in The New Yorker.
As a student of emotional intelligence, it's always interesting to read criticism on the topic. Doing so allows me to see emotional intelligence through the eyes of others. It helps me to refine my own understanding of these ideas, as well as how I communicate them.
Emre's article is primarily a critique of the uber-successful pop-psychology book Emotional Intelligence, written by former New York Times columnist Daniel Goleman. For those who are unfamiliar, Goleman's bestseller, which was originally published in 1995 and has sold millions of copies since, brought the idea of emotional intelligence to the masses: the concept that a person has the potential ability to identify, understand, and manage emotional behavior.
Emre begins by arguing that the bestseller aided the transformation of a scientific theory into a tool of corporate management. A quick Google search would seem to support that argument, with tons of companies offering emotional intelligence training, emotional intelligence assessments, and suites of tools for developing emotional intelligence.
(Disclosure: My own work falls into this category, as I founded a small company with the goal of helping others develop their own "EQ," shorthand for emotional intelligence.)
Emre's right in implying that many of these tools are poorly designed, at times putting labels on people or measuring their value as workers in comparison with one another.
Of course, as with any task, there are tools that are better suited for the work; others, not so much. And the tools that have proven useful have taken years of iteration to get where they are -- and still, they're not perfect.
But by grouping good and bad apples together, and by focusing primarily on the tools' imperfections, Emre misses something.
The underlying goal of many of these instruments is to improve workplace behavior: so that passive-aggressiveness is replaced by honest, candid conversations; so conflicts are resolved in ways that don't force feelings down, only to resurface again later; so managers and teams learn to build psychologically safe cultures, instead of workplaces people dread coming into.
In many cases, when employers invest in tools and discussion around emotional intelligence, they send a signal to employees that they're interested in trying to improve.
Emre further claims that Goleman's take on emotional intelligence lacked nuance, that it was "stripped of the social and historical detail that might give it depth and complexity." While that may be true, I'd argue that this wasn't accidental, but rather intentional.
Goleman's primary goal wasn't to provide social commentary. It was to teach how the brain processes emotional behavior, and how understanding the way the brain works could help readers to understand themselves and prepare themselves to deal with everyday challenges.
Of course, people have been exploring the nature of understanding, processing, and managing emotions for centuries. But Goleman's book gave us a springboard for more in-depth analysis. It gave us a new vocabulary, introducing (or at least popularizing) terms like "emotional hijacking," when our emotions override our rational thinking and cause us to do something we later regret.
Beyond that, it used the research available to explain why this happens. It broke down complex neuroscience in ways we could all understand. It introduced us to the role of the amygdala, the little almond-shaped part of your brain that jumps into action when you feel attacked. Then it explained how, once enough time has passed, the amygdala calms down -- so you can start thinking again with the other, more rational parts of your brain.
Of course, Emre's right that there was much more to the stories Goleman shared -- including complex environmental, political, and societal factors that played a role in how those stories played out. But getting into all those details would have distracted from Goleman's goal: to teach that emotional intelligence can help, regardless of the situation.
The key word, though, is can.
That is, emotional intelligence can help, but it doesn't always help. Because, while emotional intelligence isn't inherently evil, as Emre asserts, neither is it inherently virtuous.
Remember that emotional intelligence is the ability to use knowledge of emotions to inform and guide behavior, usually to reach a goal. But goals can differ drastically from person to person.
In the corporate world, for example, I typically extol the benefits of offering employees sincere and specific praise. But what if a person commends others just to gain more power for themselves, or to gather support for a suspect cause? What if they use their ability to express (or disguise) emotions in an attempt to manipulate others? In contrast, a person in a position of power or authority could also use fear and pressure as intimidation tactics.
You see examples of the dark side of emotional intelligence everywhere: in business, in politics, in personal life.
Goleman didn't specifically address this dark side in his initial work, but he helped us to discover it. And while it's disturbing to unearth examples of this in your own life, it's important to be able to identify them -- so you can protect yourself when you do. That's part of emotional intelligence, too.
I'm thankful for Emre's critique, because it gives us a chance to continue the conversation. But it's a conversation that, if not started by Goleman, definitely benefited from his work.